Safety is a top priority at NW Natural, and employee training is a key component. To provide the most realistic training possible, NW Natural built a mock neighborhood that gives field employees the skills and experience to respond to a wide variety of natural gas emergencies.

NW Natural opened Training Town at its Sherwood Operations and Training Center in October, 2012. Complete with marked streets, underground natural gas pipelines, gas meters and mock homes with gas appliances, it is the first scenario-based training facility in the Northwest.

The company spent roughly two years designing and building Training Town; laying the underground natural gas pipelines, building the mock homes, installing the gas meters and gas appliances, and curbing the streets.

“We decided to build our own model town when we learned that other utilities were building similar facilities,” said Grant Yoshihara, vice president of utility operations for NW Natural. “We knew this was a best practice that would significantly enhance our employee training initiatives.”

From Researching to Building

NW Natural adopted scenario-based training several years before building Training Town. At a facility operated by Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue, the regional fire department, NW Natural field employees engaged in a pilot program to gain hands-on experience responding to odor complaints, repairing damage to the gas distribution system and learning other critical skills.

This pilot program’s enthusiastic reception by employees validated the company’s desire to invest in its own permanent facility — one that would be dedicated exclusively to gas-specific scenarios.

NW Natural visited training facilities operated by Southwest Gas, Atmos Energy, Questar Gas, Pacific Gas and Electric, and Southern California Gas. Those visits helped the company prioritize which features to incorporate into the project on its 19-acre site in Sherwood, Oregon.

“The leadership and information sharing we experienced from our industry peers on scenario-based training really moved this initiative forward,” added Yoshihara. “It was because of this support that we were able to build such a high-quality, scenario-based training facility.”

A Community Partnership

When it unveiled Training Town, NW Natural invited the local fire and police departments, the city of Sherwood and the local Chamber of Commerce to participate in an emergency response demonstration.

“Through joint training, our firefighters are exposed to scenarios that better prepare them to contend with a real emergency,” said Mike Duyck, fire chief of Tualatin Valley Fire and Rescue. “These tools can prove lifesaving for us and for the people who need them when they call 911.”

Simulating the Real World

Today, Training Town gives field employees hands-on training in responding to a range of scenarios, and in operating and maintaining the gas system. “We designed our facility to replicate real-world conditions, so we can expose our employees to a variety of emergency scenarios in a very realistic, controlled and safe way. That’s really the key,” said Cari Colton, manager of training for NW Natural.

NW Natural uses the facility continuously to train both seasoned and new employees on emergency response in a variety of situations, from inside and outside odor calls to third-party damages. New employees also learn how to locate pipelines, use excavation equipment, respond to routine customer calls, and maintain meters and regulators.

Adjacent to the mock neighborhood, the company built an area to provide training on:

  • mechanized and hand excavation,
  • controlling blowing pipeline damages,
  • pipeline installation methods, and
  • safety training in areas such as high-angle work and confined spaces.

A large paved area at the Sherwood site also is used for commercial driver’s license training.

The Training Center

The company spent another year and a half building a separate training center next door to Training Town, which has four hands-on training labs, three classrooms and a computer lab. One of the labs, dedicated to appliance light up and diagnostics, is equipped with appliances that date from the 1940s to current day.

Training Town gives field employees hands-on training in responding to a range of scenarios, and in operating and maintaining the gas system.

A flow lab provides training on standard delivery pressure meter sets all the way up to high-pressure regulation and metering. Classrooms are equipped with smart boards to make learning more visual and interactive.

“Our classroom, lab and outdoor training all come together to form a comprehensive program that gives employees the experience they need to serve our customers and respond to emergencies when necessary,” said Bill Rehse, training supervisor for NW Natural. “We’re able to simulate pretty much anything employees will see out in the real world in a controlled setting, along with an instructor to help them through it.”

Training a Fully Prepared Workforce

NW Natural’s employees have always been safety conscious and are motivated to protect the public in case of gas incidents. However, a silo-based work structure meant that the full workforce wasn’t trained to respond to a full range of possible emergencies. For example, only service technicians were trained to respond to inside odor calls, while only construction employees could respond to pipeline damages.

The scenario-based approach has allowed virtually every field employee to receive first-responder training for a full range of potential incidents — greatly expanding the number of people who can be called upon at any hour for any emergency.

Training Town makes it possible for NW Natural to train and retrain its workforce more frequently than in the past and helps employees keep their skills and knowledge current.

Overall Emergency Response

Training Town is just one aspect of NW Natural’s overall emergency response program. Several years ago, NW Natural began reviewing its entire emergency response process to identify improvement opportunities. The company:

  • Established an Emergency Call Center, staffed 24/7 by specially trained, customer service representatives who focus on emergency call response. They answer every call within 10 seconds.
  • Streamlined communication between the Call Center and the Resource Management Center.
  • Resource management specialists use modern mapping technology to identify the closest-available first responder. In addition, field employees have mobile communication and software tools for fast information sharing.
  • Reevaluated after-hour systems to ensure that adequate resources are available for prompt, efficient responses — around the clock.

These changes have significantly improved NW Natural’s response time. “We now beat our targets of responding to damages in less than 30 minutes, and to odor calls in less than 45 minutes. These response times meet or exceed general industry standards,” Yoshihara said.


NW Natural employees at Training Town in Sherwood, Oregon

Additional Preparedness

NW Natural provides natural gas service to more than 687,000 residential, business and industrial customers each day.

The company meets or exceeds all federal and state pipeline safety regulations, and it has one of the most proactive pipeline management and replacement programs in the nation. With support from the Public Utility Commission of Oregon and consumer advocates, NW Natural has invested nearly $100 million in its pipeline integrity management program.

It is also one of the first gas utilities in the nation to replace all of its cast iron pipes with new polyethylene pipes, and cathodically protected and coated steel pipes. The company expects to replace its remaining 10 miles of bare steel main by 2015.